Led by former NBA star Penny Hardaway, Memphis East growing into national power

Led by former NBA star Penny Hardaway, Memphis East growing into national power

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Led by former NBA star Penny Hardaway, Memphis East growing into national power

Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway gathered his players in a circle at the Fort Myers (Fla.) YMCA.

The retired NBA veteran and coach of the Memphis (Tenn.) East basketball team scanned the circle. He looked each player in the eyes. He challenged them during a Saturday morning practice.

The Memphis East Mustangs won Tennessee’s Class 3A state championship last season, Hardaway’s first as a high school coach. He explained the title meant nothing now, that the No. 11 ranking in USA Today’s Super 25 meant nothing either. The team’s 7-1 record was irrelevant entering a late Saturday matchup against Atlanta (Georgia) Pace Academy in the 44th Annual Culligan City of Palms Classic at Florida SouthWestern State College’s Suncoast Credit Union Arena.

CITY OF PALMS TOP PLAYS: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Hardaway stressed that asserting power over fellow Memphis programs and dominating, or even winning a game in the nation’s most-heralded basketball tournament, were two very different things.

If the Mustangs didn’t bring maximum effort, Hardaway said, they would lose.

“I played against the top competition in the country in AAU,” the 6-foot-7 Hardaway said of his high school days at Treadwell High in Memphis, where he averaged 36 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists per game as a senior. He earned national player of the year honors in 1991. “I dominated, and they ranked me No. 1.

“But we didn’t play against the competition that these guys are playing  down here. This is the opportunity to play against some really good schools. We played in a tournament that had (future NBA big men) Shawn Bradley, Rodney Rogers and a couple of other guys, but nothing like this level.”

Most of the Memphis East basketball players were ages 6, 7 or 8 in 2008, when Hardaway, now 45, retired from the NBA for good following a 16-game stint with the Miami Heat.

Those players include Jayden Hardaway, the coach’s son, now 18 and a senior guard.

Raised in Miami by his mother, Jayden decided to leave Coral Gables High in Miami for Memphis earlier this year in order to play for his dad.

RELATED: VIDEO: Jayden Hardaway, Penny’s son, can light it up

“It was tough at first,” Jayden Hardaway said. “But I thought I would have a better chance for more exposure.”

Yes, Jayden Hardaway said, people try to call him ‘Lil’ Penny, referring to the character from his father’s shoe commercials from two decades ago. He doesn’t like it.

“I prefer Jayden,” he said. He also explained what it’s like to be the son of an elite player.

“There’s pressure on me everywhere I go,” Jayden Hardaway said. “Everybody expects for us to have the same kind of game. I don’t pay attention to it.”

Jayden Hardaway said he didn’t remember much of the latter stages of his father’s playing career. But he has watched a lot of video.

“We’re both very unselfish,” Jayden Hardaway said. “He was a better playmaker than me, but I’m trying to work on that, too.”

Anfernee Hardaway said the plan is for his son to play next season as a postgraduate at a prep school before pursuing college. Of course, that could change should Jayden, a starter, get any Division I offers from the exposure he is sure to receive at the Classic.

Jayden Hardaway joined an elite high school program. It includes Chandler Lawson, a 6-foot-8 sophomore considered one of the top five players in the nation and junior guards T.J. Moss and Alex Lomax, who are considered top 50-ranked players by recruiting analyst Clark Francis of Hoop Scoop.

The players are too young to remember Hardaway the player, so they are not in awe of them that way. But they said they are in awe of him as a coach.

“He played at all levels, and he shows us what it takes to get to the next level,” senior guard Rodarious Washington said.

Health woes, including the recovery from a micro fracture surgery on his left leg, limited the latter half of Hardaway’s 13 NBA seasons. But his first four years in professional basketball were showcases in elite athleticism. They brought him fame in four consecutive All-Star appearances in 1994-97 and fortune in more than $100 million in career earnings.

The Nike ‘Lil’ Penny shoe commercials in the mid-1990s set Hardaway up for more fame and fortune, as did a turn on the big screen in the 1994 basketball movie “Blue Chips.” He returned to the small screen earlier this year in “The Magic Moment,” part of ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary series that profiled the 1994-95 Orlando Magic.

Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal led that team to the NBA Finals before falling to the Houston Rockets.

Hardaway averaged 20.9 points, 7.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game that season. He shot 51 percent.

“We had a team with so much talent,” Hardaway said. “I think we knew what we really had when we got there. We came together really well and played really He good basketball.”

But then O’Neal left for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Hardaway endured painful injuries. The what-ifs are over now, though.

Hardaway still plays, three days a week, at his gym in Memphis.

“He doesn’t miss too many shots,” said Nych Smith, a sophomore point guard for FSW from Memphis. Smith played AAU basketball for Hardaway’s Team Penny in 2012-13.

“He knows so much about the game of basketball,” Smith said. “He taught me stuff I never knew about. He taught me how to play the game of basketball the right way. I felt my basketball IQ go up, just being around him.”

Rocky Jackson said much of the same. Jackson, 30, was supplanted by Hardaway as the head coach last season. He said he didn’t mind. He stayed as an assistant and has been learning more ever since.

“It’s Penny Hardaway, man,” Jackson said. “Penny is the man.”

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